Picador, out September 10
“Survival is insufficient” – the motto by which the Travelling Symphony lives as it tours a post-apocalyptic North America, bringing culture to what remains of the human race…
Station Eleven is not your standard post-apocalyptic fare, by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, there are clashes between rival groups, with some whose outlook on life has been warped completely by the after-effects of the Georgia Flu, which wiped out most people. Many of those left standing in Year 20 have killed to survive – but in this Mad Max world, most of the weapons we see are musical instruments and words.
The book is named after a comic strip/graphic novel created by one of the characters whom we realise as the story is revealed has far-reaching connections. Most of the key protagonists are linked in some way to an actor who dies of a heart attack in the early pages of the book, a cardiac incident not connected to the virulent disease but which is as much a trigger for the book’s events as the Survivors-type plague described.
Mandel’s style appears to be free-flowing – a character may remember some incident from before the plague, which is then described, introducing someone else whose story of survival (or otherwise) we then learn – but once you’ve finished the book, you can see how clever the structure is, and how she links facts in the mind of the reader which simply couldn’t be connected by the characters themselves. It empowers the reader with more than the usual omniscience, and means that you will want to return to the start and reread the book with the benefit of the knowledge you gain from the first perusal.
The characters are all well-drawn, and react to the situations – in our current society; as that collapses; and after the plague – credibly (although this has to be the first post-apocalypse story to draw its inspiration from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager). The book jumps between timeframes – before, during and after the plague – but we see a shared attitude between those who survive more or less intact that provides hope for humanity: they are determined to live, not just survive.
Verdict: A thought-provoking and extremely powerful tale set in an all too credible world. 9/10